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In 2015 I visited Krakow in Poland. Krakow has a long and complex history spanning hundreds of years. But in living memory, it has become a place visited for its darker times. Needing to see this place for myself, we took a visit to Auschwitz.
A Visit to Auschwitz
The Nazis invaded Poland in 1939, and less than a week later they had occupied Krakow, taking up residence in the beautiful Wawel Castle in the town.
The Nazis had a plan in mind called their Final Solution. This involved an ethnic cleansing of Europe under their occupation.
40 miles west of Krakow is the small town of Oswiecim, and it was here that they took control of an existing Polish Army camp. They opened the first camp, Auschwitz I in 1940.
The gates bear the infamous motto ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ – Work Brings Freedom. As you enter, you get a huge sense of the forbidding that the inmates must have felt.
The barrack blocks are severe and heavily guarded, with high barbed wire fencing and bars at the windows. Many of the blocks now house a museum and tribute to the inmates that would have been placed here. Firstly, the Nazis imprisoned and tortured anyone who opposed their plans, so many of the first inmates were local Polish academics and dignitaries.
There are some very dark areas, such as the small dungeon room where 4 people were squashed together, barely able to breath but left to stand in total darkness for weeks on end. And an outdoor wall that was the designated area for the firing squad.
You get a real sense of the despair of all who entered here. It’s a barren and lonely place, and even though there were lots of people crammed into a small area, you can imagine that they felt quite isolated and helpless being trapped in such horrible conditions. The blocks are severe and spartan inside. Life must have been very hard for the inmates of this terrible place.
Saddest of all, there are rooms full of the possessions of those that passed through these areas. Vast mounds of shoes, suitcases and clothes all bearing the names of those lost in these darkest days.
But one of the worst parts of Auschwitz I is the recreated chamber where the Nazis started their plan to systematically exterminate a whole race by gassing.
This first gas chamber is quite small. Their first forays into killing people via this method were experimental at first. But still, you get a sense of where their plans were going.
The first camp pales into insignificance when you pass through the gates at the second camp. Auschwitz II (or Birkenau) was built in 1942, two miles away from the first camp.
By this time, the Final Solution had been officially approved, and three-quarters of the Jewish inmates brought into the camp were immediately taken away and murdered in the massive gas chambers. Train lines came from all over Europe right into the camp.
Above all else that you notice is the fact that there is very little left to see at this camp except a few housing blocks. Because these few blocks were all that was needed for the few inmates allowed to survive.
On discovering that they were about to be seized at the end of WWII, the Germans tried to destroy all evidence of Birkenau by detonating bombs at the site. There is very little remaining of the gas chambers except piles of concrete rubble. However, the bombing did not fully succeed, and thank goodness that it didn’t .
A visit to Auschwitz can be harrowing and upsetting. For this may be a place of unspeakable evil, but it is also a monument to the fact that these atrocities should never be repeated. May we never forget.